In Defence of Ore Imo

I recently rewatched Ore Imo and thought I’d better get something off my chest:

I really like Ore Imo, you could even say that I love it!

But don’t mistake me; I don’t think Ore Imo (appreciably short for Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai or There’s no Way my Little Sister can be this Cute) is by any means a perfect anime, or even great. I’m talking here about an abnormal, irrational kind of love, much like the central romance of the anime itself.

Don’t worry, it’s not that I have a thing for my sister anything (I don’t even have one), and I’m not some kind of incest fetishist either. No, it’s just that OreImo has a strange way of taking me in and pulling my heart strings. Even years later, upon my recent rewatch, that affection came flooding back, much to my surprise. It’s been a few years, and I’ve naturally grown into a hard, seasoned anime verteran. I expected to shake my head a wonder how it was I ever liked this trash. Instead, it clicked with me all over again.

A lot of people hate the feisty Kirino, but she’s up on the waifu mantle for me. And many critics will rush to buy first class seats and clamber aboard the ‘show is trash’ train, but I found it to be far more moving and clever than most other run-of-the-mill light novel series. But why?

My hunch is that it’s all in the characters.

Throughout the first half of the series, you can be forgiven for thinking that the anime and its colourful cast boils down to sensationalist, skin-deep bait. Kirino is deeply implausible on paper – a 14 year old otaku, model, ace student and school athlete who also sleeps and is mortal. Bullshit, right? What’s more, she comes across as a shallow, self-centered bitch right from the start, taking the tsundere archetype and running away with it to new frontiers. Kyousuke is a self-proclaimed ‘ordinary high-school boy’, basically advertising himself as trope on legs. Then there’s Manami, the tranquil childhood friend, Kuroneko the straight-laced, no-frills goth-loli. As for the bother x sister overtones, that’s gotta be a bait that’ll amount to nothing, right?

Wrong. All wrong. OreImo is all about people being dishonest, with others and with themselves. But it’s not just the characters in the show who don’t know what each other are thinking – we don’t know either. The author makes a point of making sure nothing is at appears, and by the end of it, you’ll come to know them as unique and fascinating individuals whose sometimes strange actions are born from honest truths. A little larger than life, sure, but by no means shallow or cliche.

Don’t take Kirino’s outbursts earlier in the show at face value – there’s more to her bitterness

What’s interesting is how this depth is organically explored, because it’s almost the opposite to convention. Take the character of Kirino – normally a storyteller would start her out as a blank canvas, then craft her into a more interesting character through the experiences of the story. Whereas, Ore Imo had all its character development happen years ago, off screen. The start of a love story, dramatic falling out between friends, life-changing events all transpired in Kyousuke and Kirino’s childhood that they have both since buried with their own barriers and the sands of time.

The angry, bitter Kirino and the lethargic Kyousuke at the start of the show are already twisted up into a knot of denial and, in Kirino’s case, unrequited feelings. The rest of the story is then not about them growing, but almost unwravelling the last few years and coming to understand themselves again.

Occasional hints are dropped that make you question the characters words – why is Kirino so infatuated with little sister eroge?

But first, a little back story for those not across it:

A key later episode provides the missing link, how they went from childhood besties to distant co-habitants of the Kousaka household. When they were young kids, Kyousuke was boisterous, confident and the ace of the class in grades and sports. Kirino didn’t just look up to him, she was infatuated with him and he instilled in her an unshakeable personal drive that shaped her adolescent life. As she pushed herself in her studies and her track team activities, Kyousuke meanwhile fell into a rut, quitting running and letting his grades slip into mediocrity. Gone was the person she aspired to; she’d spent years trying to stand proudly next to him only to find that, when she had reached that point, that person no longer existed in Kyousuke. She blamed Kyousuke’s childhood friend Manami for his descent, but more importantly, it made her hate and resent what she saw as the shambling shell of Kyousuke.

Through this history and gradually seeing some of their innate personality traits you can begin to appreciate Kyousuke, and yes, even Kirino. But you can’t talk about them without talking about their strange love story,

The central romance between Kirino and Kyousuke is not just thrown in for shits and giggles; it is an ever-present, looming force from the very first scenes with roots running deep into the characters hearts. To the author’s credit, I’m sure he set out to deliver a taboo love story from the very  beginning and had the balls to see it through, even against the push-back from publishers and the chagrin of many fans. The author sticking to his guns and writing his story I think goes a long way to explain why OreImo has an edge that many light novels lack.

-… the author apologizes for being a troublemaker (and comments that the other writers must be sick of him), but says that he doesn’t let that pressure affect his writing or change what he wants to write. He says that “occasionally I have no choice but to change what I want to write, but I decided from the get-go that I wouldn’t write something ‘lukewarm'”. (i.e. That he wouldn’t write just to please others, or in response to pressure.)


Throughout this journey, I found Kirino and Kyousuke to have more chemistry than the vast majority of other anime couplings out there – a fiery, confused and chaotic chemistry no doubt, but a real, visceral sense of attraction and tension. Most romances in anime feel like an arranged marriage, an inevitable pairing of convenience between the hero and heroine simply because that’s the way things go. That or they’re the product of a typical harem situation, where a flurry of jealousy is confused for a love story. Many shoujo on the other hand may ham-fist emotion into their romances with comically over the top trauma or ‘edgy’ dark pasts.

Either way, it’s usually surface level stuff you could pull out of a hat. Kirino and Kyousuke however, have a love that comes from somewhere altogether more complicated and rooted in real situations.

This bears fruit in their loaded interactions, where words don’t match actions and actions don’t match their body language let alone their true feelings.  Kyousuke’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to defend and make his sister happy are justified by a simple ‘because I’m her brother’, while his front of ambivalence towards her personal life is belied by deep-set forlornness when she goes overseas or they have a fight. Kirino’s seemingly vile anger, is a mask of her own feelings so convincing that even she buys it most of the time. She blushes as she scorns her bother with lines like ‘ go get hit by a bus’, ‘creep!’, et cetera. This aggression is her way of both fighting back her disgust at her own forbidden, incestual feelings, and lashing out at the person Kyousuke has become at the cost of the boy he once was.

Throughout the second season, Kirino and Kyousuke’s interactions are rife with double meaning and subtext that they don’t even fully grasp, creating thrilling tension.

This leads us to the hot-topic tsundere element. Sure, Kirino is a tsundere, and sure, she has the lion’s share of tsun, at times being one of the most gratingly abrasive anime girls to ever grace the TV screen, but you’ve got her all wrong if you think that’s all there is to it. She’s a tsundere who not only can’t be honest with others, she can’t be honest with herself on a level that’s practically self destructive. In the darkest corner of the lowest chasms of her heart, she is in love with her brother, but she is so scared by the thought, repulsed by the idea and spiteful towards the person Kyousuke is now, that the feeling is tied up and wound a hundred times within her.

The thing I like about her character though is that the love isn’t neatly sealed away, it’s tangled all through her, a  messy knot of emotions that sometimes gives her drive, sometimes leads her down surprising paths like becoming an otaku, and creates this tension within her that manifests in her tsundere actions. When she’s being bitter, it’s not just a distraction tactic, or mere reflex to embarrassment – it’s genuine anger from that dark vortex inside that even she doesn’t want to face or understand.

-By the end of the story, his favourite character is Kirino, but it wasn’t that way at first and he was just as annoyed with her as Kyousuke was at the beginning. But having her hide her true romantic feelings was part of the setting, and so he struggled to bring out the charm of this hated heroine little by little over the course of the narrative. And then, as all these developments started adding up, the amount of people who came to like her increased, and that made the author happy.


Once this knot inside her is unstrung, her verbal lashings no longer carry the same edge, instead landing softly and feeling like playful banter. If early Kirino told you to go get hit by a bus you’d probably feel a chill down your spine, but when it comes from late Kirino you’d probably laugh and fire something back. On paper, she acts the same, but you know she doesn’t feel the same and her tsun side is almost now just habitual. And of course there are those moments that every tsundere fan lives for, when the clouds part and heaven casts its golden rays for that fleeting moment of dere.

Kirino’s tsun comes from a deep, dark place, but those moments where she manages to let her real feelings slip out are truly one of natures miracles.

Kyousuke may identify as a boring everyday highschool boy, but even before we find out that he used to be a passionate, driven child, he frequently lets slip more attitude that many main male characters who are outright TRYING to be interesting. This is especially true when it comes to Kirino, who can unlock his innate zeal. Whether it’s riding all across Tokyo on a publicly indecent loli bicycle just to get her to a concert on time, acting as a talent agent to help win her a rare figure prize from a cosplay competition, or publicly confessing his love for his sister, Kyousuke is an unstoppable force when it comes to her. It doesn’t just attest to his love for her, but also reveals his true nature.

These two spend so long fighting with each other and their own feelings that I couldn’t but root for them with full force. They deserve true love after all the false hatred. Kyousuke’s confession was a worthy moment, but I was more amazed at the quiet, understated scene later in the hotel room. It was just them talking, no screaming, no crying or running through the city – but they were finally talking honestly with each other! A touching moment of peace.

I could go on about the other characters, especially the wonderful Kuroneko, but by now I think I’ve played my hand: OreImo is not all that it appears, and most critics have taken it at face value. There’s far more depth, nuance and truth in this work than so many other critic darlings out there. The depth that is there is massaged to the surface by remarkable voice acting performances, and strong production values that perfectly express Kanzaki Hiiro’s superb character designs

Sure, there’s also plenty of dumb stuff in here, especially unnecessary harem elements, and it’s never going to be considered intellectual literature, but I do think it has a surprising amount of heart to it.

At the end of the day, there’s something about the gutsy and deceptively earnest way Tsukasa Fushimi pulled off his characters and relationships that makes you think ‘There’s no way my trashy otaku LN series can be this good‘.








Kabaneri’s ‘Make-Up Animation’


If you’ve seen Koutetsu no Kabaneri I think it’s safe to assume you noticed that a few times every episode, a particular shot would rear its head as particularly beautiful and well-drawn. I know a lot of people, myself included, found the effect a little jarring – in addition to blowing me away with those special shots it made me realise how bland it looked the rest of the time. That said, it got me wondering, how did they achieve the effect, and perhaps more importantly, why? I did a bit of digging, and what I found has given me a lot more respect for what they were trying to achieve and the skill and effort that went into these ‘make-up animation’ shots.

The story of Kabaneri’s animation style all starts with the drawings of one man, Haruhiko Mikimoto. Mikimoto was a major formative player in the 80s anime aesthetic, working extensively alongside Shoji Kawamori, he was responsible for the character design work for the original Macross and the subsequent sequels up until the Macross 7 series. He also designed the characters for GAINAX’s seminal Gunbuster OVA.  As a designer who is pure illustrator rather than of animator origins, the degree to which he was embedded in the anime look during the 80s was certainly unusual. He was even credited with animation director (Character Director, specifically) on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which is definitely rare for a non-animator, and kind of unheard of nowadays. He has a gentle art style that lends itself to beautiful girls, with an element of realism and a soft beauty, his designs stand the test of time.

Since his heyday he has bowed out of the anime industry to some degree, but has remained active as an illustrator and manga artist. Fleeting chances at a major comeback have slipped by over the years, the most recent being the designer for the adaptation of his manga, Tytania. Sadly, that series fell far short of being a grand success. He had previously stated that he thought he may not get any more opportunities to design in anime due to the fact that he pursues the use of shadow and delicate line-work to express his characters which runs counter to the direction of the industry, tending to favour simple designs with crisp lines.

This all changed, however, when the director of Kabaneri, Tetsurou Araki, reached out to him for his individual style to mark a triumphant return to the medium. To help his revival of his classic look, he discussed with director Araki what they could do on Kabaneri and came up with the idea of not using the standard 1 or 2 grade shadows but instead using ‘0.5 grade shadows’. Before getting into the hype ‘0.5 grade shadows’ buzz term, let me quickly touch on what shadow grades mean.

Basically most anime is done with 1-grade shadows, back in the 80s and the 90s to some degree, the design work and aesthetic was such that it was popular to ramp that up to 2-grade shadows. This means you have 3 dimensions of shading that the key animators have to apply to their drawings. 1 grade usually means a character can have one shade of shadow, 2 grades means they can have a deeper level of shadow within a shadow. These grades have different predefined coloured lines/shading within the genga.


In this image, you can see that the character is drawn to 2-grade shadows. There is a shadow shading on the hair (1影) and then a deeper shade (2影). They have also used a highlight shade (ハイライト).

You might be confused then as to what 0.5 grade means. How can you have half a grade? Apparently, so was Mikimoto, who originally thought that shadow would be used sparsely and with somewhat faint colours so as to not make them too bold. However, the idea was to diminish the clear definition of shadow lines altogether. Put very simply, the concept of 0.5 grade shadow is that instead of producing anime with rigid, line-defined areas of shadow, the animation would have the feel of an illustration, using soft gradients and brushes to apply shading.

As you might imagine, this is a massively ambitious shift in the production norm and very difficult to apply. If you are familiar with the work of a key animator you would know that their work is taken by someone else to be digitised into computer format before being coloured. The lines of the animators guide the colouring staff as to how the shading and highlight should be applied. This means that the key animator cannot simply apply gradient and brush shading directly in their key-frames. To tackle this approach, director Araki had to reform the production process itself with the creation of a brand new production credit, the ‘make-up animator’

A kind-of similar credit already exists, and is also used in Kabaneri, called Special Effect (特殊効果). Special effects also involves touching up the digitised drawings but is generally used for mechanical objects such as guns or mecha. Director Araki allowed Kabaneri’s special effects artist, Chiemi Irisa (入佐芽詠美) to share some examples of her work on twitter, offering a rare glance of the position at work. What a different show Kabaneri would have been without this!

But the make-up animator credit is different in a number of ways. The most obvious distinction is that it’s being applied to characters, sometimes in motion, rather than static objects. As you can imagine, illustrating people and mechanical detail require a very different skillset. However,the differences aren’t purely cosmetic (pardon the pun) – the make-up animator has a much bigger part in the animation production process.

Normally, the key animator’s drawings are in-betweened and digitised and then passed on to touch-up and colouring. Once the colouring is done, the Special Effects role steps in and adds detail, as seen in the above picture. The make-up animator, however, takes the reigns from the in-betweening stage, being responsible for the digitisation, colouring and then their own brand of beautification. Various techniques are applied to transform a normal cut into more of an illustration following the ‘0.5 grade shading’ philosophy. Brushes, special linework, and gradient colouring are digitally painted to evoke the gentle, delicate artistry of Mikimoto’s original illustrations.

The example below shows this being applied.


In this case, you can see that the genga is already quite detailed and uses 2-grade shadows, plus highlights. These shadows and highlight lines defined by the genga are strictly coloured in the next section by the make-up animator. The final image shows the completed frame with the ‘make-up’ effects applied.

This example clearly shows the application of digitally painted brush, shine and soft lines on the face, hair and eyes. They really are applying make-up to bring out the beauty of the character and the 0.5 grade shading is a clear part of that. In the final image, the shadows are no longer clear-cut levels but naturally gradient. The result is quite stunning and does reflect the soft beauty in some of Mikimoto’s illustrations.

This work was done buy a team of Make-Up Animators led by Sachiko Matsumoto  with a series-wide credit of chief make-up animator. Sachiko has been thriving in a the photography/compositing area of production for some time, doing great work on Guilty Crown back before WIT was spawned from from I.G. The surprising shift to a more drawing-based role that even involves work with in-between drawing is made possible by her original fondness for drawing and her art school graduation.

Sachiko looked deeply into Mikimoto’s illustrations, observing the radiance that comes from his blurred colours and the soulful highlight in his pupils, and the way his hair feels like one long, gentle stream. She also drew inspiration from Osamu Dezaki’s harmony cuts, where the shot turns into a painting with cel and background seamlessly coming together into one artwork. This inspiration is very clear in some of the made-up shots.

If anyone remembers the remarkable, completely over-promising trailer for Kabaneri? If not, I’ve inserted it below. The extensive use of make-up animation and special effects in every shot of this trailer was a massive part of its wow-factor (and subsequent over-hype).

The studio invested in a new piece of software called 「TVPaint Animation」for this work on the trailer. The software is for digital genga, providing a lot of advanced tools including a range of brush effects.Only a small team of people with digital genga experience were at WIT studio and they had a lot of trial an error with learning the software. When the production started on the full show, they were pulled together to form the make-up animator team.

Kabaneri’s Make-up Animators

松本幸子 市万田千恵子 藤井苑美 広瀬いづみ 山﨑千恵

中愛夏 (from episode 9 onward)

The limitations of the make-up animator approach is that it would be a prohibitively expensive undertaking to do it frame-by-frame for whole sequences. Where the trailer could afford to deliver a concentrated, uninterrupted hit of highly touched-up animation, the series fell well short of this. Despite the hype surrounding this new credit, the reality was that it could only be applied to certain key moments, mainly money shots of the characters. The team worked on about 10 cuts per episode.

While those cuts certainly look fantastic, I think the overall experience for a lot of people was a jarring one. Those spotlight moments, it turns out, also tend to illuminate how bland and flat the show looks like without its make-up on. I have no doubt that, especially given it’s poor production values further into the series, their workload would have been better refocused on the basics of dynamic and expressive animation. That said, I cannot fault it as a marketing technique – the trailer certainly rammed this series into many people’s ‘must-watch’ baskets, and I have no doubt that those made-up ‘money-shots’ of Mumei did a lot for her bishoujo marketability.

Director Araki is guilty of putting hype and sales pitch over making a good anime, but he’s also guilty of boldly trying something new in the production lifecycle, and trying something new for all the right reasons. The make-up animation wasn’t thought-up to make production easier or more efficient, it was dreamed up to take the look and feel of 2D animation to a new level of beauty and prowess and to conjure the tender beauty of an old pro’s illustration work. Sometimes in the anime medium, whether an attempt like this was a technical success or not is far less important than the fact that people cared enough to try.

And who knows, maybe make-up animation may well become another staple weapon in the young Wit Studio and director Araki’s arsenal when they tackle their next big project.



Interviews Read:







Episode Spotlight: Needless 13


Storyboard & Director: 沼田誠也 (Seiya Numata)

Animation Director: 坂井久太 (Kyuuta Sakai)

Animation: 沼田誠也 (Seiya Numata), 坂井久太 (Kyuuta Sakai)

It was late at night after a long week. Lying on the couch with my partner powering through a few episodes of anime,  my eyes were starting to close on their own as sleep overcame me. It was at this point that I was introduced to the 13th episode of the boisterous TV anime adaptation of Needless. Suddenly I was wide awake, eyes pried open and fixated to the screen. Right off the bat, there was something very different about this episode, something uniquely exhilarating.

I didn’t know this going in, but when I looked up the staff after the episode finished I was astounded to see that the episode was pretty much the handiwork of just two people, and those creators were none other than the devious duo of Seiya Numata and  Kyuuta Sakai!

Before Seiya Numata was swallowed into the eternal pit of no escape that is Milky Holmes, he was a star animator making waves across the industry with attention-grabbing cuts on a myriad of works such as Tora Dora, Gurren Lagann and Higurashi. His ability to pull of dynamic action made him a popular choice for handling fight sequences. His scenes often divided opinions due to his unusual style, but he certainly made a name for himself. His fight from Toradora turned a lot of heads.

Personally I’ve never really been a huge fan of his brand of animation style with its gelatinous warping and stretching, but I admire his magnetism as an animator. He is a devotee of the original charisma animator Yoshinori Kanada, frequently referencing his work and chasing a kindred creative freedom. Alongside Jun Arai, he forms a central pillar to Needless’s aesthetic, which is an uninhibited ode to Kanada and his epoch. Numata exerted a lot of influence with the role of ‘Design Works’ throughout the show as well as ‘Technical Director’.

And it’s difficult to talk about Numata without mentioning Kyuuta Sakai, his sister-in-arms who he brought into most of his projects around this time and has a strong personal friendship with. Sakai is probably a name fresh in most people’s minds as she is the accomplished character designer for the brand new hit Re:Zero. She is now pretty much exclusively a character designer/chief animation director and thrives as an illustrator.

Probably a key uniting factor between the two is their shared fondness for drawing sexy young girls, and the term ‘lolimator’ was coined for them during their days together. If you don’t believe me, the first Needless ED, also featured in this episode is their work and one of the most carnal, intoxicating hits of fanservice I have ever been fortunate enough to witness.

Before Sakai went to White Fox with her work on Steins;Gate, these two were inseparable, and this episode of Needless is one of the best things to come from their early union. The episode is directed and storyboarded by Numata, and, excluding oversight from the chief animation director, entirely and exclusively key-animated by the two of them. It’s a concentrated hit of the Numata and Sakai pair!

As a result, the episode stands out clearly from all the others. Numata’s storyboard and direction immediately make an impact, forgoing convention to deliver an episode that is uniquely tense and weirdly intimate. Numata takes the idea of a stage-play approach and runs with it, focusing on the dialogue and expressions of the characters to the exclusion of all else. There’s no attempt to hide this approach – the episode opens with the room darkened like a stage and all the characters placed under a literal spotlight. Many cuts are plane with an audience line of site, and dramatic lighting is abused like nothing else.

The style actually reminds me of early Akiyuki Shinbou with it’s Ikuhara-esque shots and focus on striking colour design. Numata applied bold neon colouring to many of his sense to deliver the sense of exaggerated drama and also a cool-factor. Some of the shots definitely delivered.

In addition to the darkness enshrouding the scene and the striking lighting, Numata applies a focus on intense facial expressions in close-up which includes detail such as sweat forming and rolling down people’s faces. This all makes for a potent sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the vast open room the events occur within. The moment in which the main villain makes his entrance in particular casts a palpable sense of dread making for one of the most suspenseful moments Needless ever had.

The animation itself is surprisingly active given the fact that it was only key animated by the two of them. Numata works his usual magic with the action highlight that features frenetic movement, spinning camerawork and distorted drawings to ram-home a sense of force. The portion of the fight that is completely upside down is one of those quirky moments that really defines Needless.

One of his most memorable cuts from the episode is not from an action scene but rather this pretty inexplicable cut of Setsuna’s nose bursting into a nosebleed with the intense rage overcoming her. This is an example of Numata’s contorted style works really well as her face twists into this sharp glare of focused fury. I challenge you to find my an anime character looking more angry than this.


The cuts that were presumably handled by Sakai meanwhile were simple fluid animation. The smooth moments stood out to help build up the sense of excitement and differentiate the episode from the normal limited kanada-school style of the rest of the series. There’s also this indescribable sense of style to her movements. Stepping up to being a prolific animation director indicates that she was a powerhouse animator back in her day on the front lines. She apparently has a special skill where she holds both pencil and colour pencil in the one hand and can swiftly use the colour pencil to add shadow lines.

My rewatch of Needless has been an enjoyable affair on the whole, but this episode turned it up a notch, from mildly bemusing to genuinely exciting. Seiya Numata’s unconventional design sense and bold stage-play approach combined with the animation goods delivered by partner-in-crime Sakai make this a grandstand episode.

This episode is not only one of the most condensed examples of Numata and Sakai working together, especially when you include the ED that was exclusively handled by them, but it also appears to be the climax of Numata’s extensive involvement in the series with no major credits on any episode thereafter. He is technical director and a design contributor on the show throughout, but no front-line involvement as an animator. Beyond just Needless this is the most interesting work I have seen of Numata’s in terms of storytelling and direction.


Episode Spotlight: Mob Psycho 100 #8


Director: 立川譲 (Toshiyuki Takei)

Storyboard: 立川譲 重原克也 (Yuzuru Tachikawa  Katsuya Shigehara )

Animation Director: 亀田祥倫 (Yoshimichi Kameda)

Yoshimichi Kameda is undoubtedly the pedestal animation force behind this series. Although he was responsible for the character design, he did not take up the credit of chief animation director that usually accompanies this. Generally the chief animation director is the single overruling source of truth for close-ups and facial shots of their character designs so they spend their time furiously correcting and supervising the work of the episode animation supervisors below them throughout the whole show. For a series like New Game, the precise appeal of the beautiful characters is a major selling point, making this role critical. Mob Psycho has no such aspiration, instead Kameda’s drive for the series was to allow it to thrive on chaos and disorder, whipping a cacophony of different animation styles into a charismatic chorus, a heaving, messy swell of excitement. He is best placed to do this closer to the front lines; serving as animation director for an episode allows him to supervise the animation, not just the drawings.

Episode 8 is the only episode since the first that he taken up arms, to orchestrate the animation of a Mob Psycho episode. The results are astounding. Much like the greatest of the great charismatic animators before him, Kameda has again surpassed expectations, blowing to pieces the conventional anime style and making it his toy.

Kameda has proven himself a great animation director because he has been able to weave each of the animator’s individual styles into a cohesive tapestry of animation. In my view, there is no one grand-standing piece of animation – all of the more prominent animators’ styles are celebrated with equal gusto. Usually when you get a charismatic animator on an episode, their segment stands out like a sore thumb. This episode makes it into my list of greats because only a show like Mob Psycho with an animation director like Yoshimichi Kameda could we get an episode so invigoratingly animated that the individuality of the animation doesn’t feel at all idiosyncratic.

Both in terms of his drawings and his movements, Kameda’s animation style is rough, gritty and visceral. In his break-out work on Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, that grit, that rawness made the sequence where Roy Mustang incinerated a certain character (spoiler dodge!) unforgettable. It took the glamour out of death and perfectly reflected his vengeful frame of mind. In Mob Psycho, Kameda’s roughness both compliments the playfully dirty design manifesto of the series but also, more importantly, takes the glamour out of his battle sequences. While other shows portray sleek, cool fights, Mob Psycho degrades and brutalises those involved in the skirmishes. This plays nicely into Mob’s stand-point of not wanting to fight and hurt others.

Kameda obtains this roughness in his work through a variety of techniques, including the use of an Ukiyo-e brush and rough pencil work. One thing is for sure, his genga are the anything but clean:

This style has clearly been imparted to the key animators who worked on this episode, who have implemented it in different ways. Bold, brush-like lines, sketchy pencil marks, scraggly linework and dirty smears are pervasive throughout the episode. There are several moments that nail the style so perfectly that you get the sense that Kameda made divine intervention as supervisor and roughed up the genga himself. Such moments are fleeting but very carefully interspersed at impact moments throughout the action so that you feel the force of Kameda without him betraying the style of the key animator.

Probably the tidbit of animation that grabbed me the most this episode was this:


The way the hackled lines undulate with a kind of electric energy, as if yearning to explode into formless scrawl is a powerful statement of Mob’s wrath. Again, I feel Kameda’s hand in this but I’d love to know how this cut turned out this way! Sakugabooru has it included as part of Yutaka Nakamura’s scene, but I can’t be sure.

I was fascinated to see Yuuto Kaneko at the top of the genga list for the episode (meaning he contributed the most). Kaneko is one of the most ascendant young animators associated with studio Trigger who came onboard as part of the Little Witch Academia training project after jumping ship from GAINAX. He proved himself by becoming a core animator on Kill la Kill, and reaching the status of a stand-out animator on Kiznaiver and Luluco. He also contributed to episode 3, but this is in my view his best work to date. In particular, this sequence was astounding.

Although much noise has been made about Yutaka Nakamura’s piece at the climax of the fight, this segment was perhaps more interesting animation wise, the rough deformation and sketchiness of it being classically Mob Psycho. Kaneko has adopted a strength from his Trigger brethren Akira Amemiya and Imaishi that plays neatly into Kameda’s aesthetic – the crayon-like thick lines, chalky effect dashes and pencil scrawled smears are incorporated into his animation to spectacular effect this episode.

Another segment that caught my eye was likely by Akira Yamashita (presumed so because he tweeted about drawing the delinquents with a picture of a particular pose). If this is is indeed his work, it’s also very impressive and revels well in the dirty feel of the episode. The crass contortions of the faces is so fun to watch in motion and his drawings feature a lot of rough line detail and charcoal style.

Of course, I can’t forget to mention the climactic finish to the sequence, handled by none other than Bones resident star animator Yutaka Nakamura. Nakamura rarely fails to produce exhilarating animation, and this is far from an exception, with some smooth background animation, an explosion of effects and weighty, realistic kinetics as Mob throws his opponent down. To top it off there’s a fade to formless sketch as  mob’s fury hits its pinnacle.

Topping the web-generation episode 5, this takes the cake for being the best animated episode of Mob Psycho and even managed to squeeze in our first taste of legitimate plot with the introduction of the evil organisation, Claw. I am not expecting that crown to be passed on until the final episode, which will almost certainly be spearheaded by Kameda again and sit in BONES’ all-out sakuga finale hall of fame.
Key Animation

金子雄人 篠田知宏 宇佐美萌 宗圓祐輔 武藤信宏
増田伸孝 前田義宏 鈴木優太郎 島田佳 舛田裕美
宮島直樹 加藤滉介 五十嵐祐貴 石橋翔祐

光田史亮 わしお 山下滉 長坂慶太 工藤糸織
佐藤由貴 阿部尚人 高山朋浩 佐藤利幸 中村豊

橋本治奈 平田有加


Art Direction: Illya vs Orange

In simple terms, what you see when watching an anime is the culmination of two different visual elements – the animation, which is the things that move, and the art, which is the static backdrop. After the director approves the layout for a cut, which is like the rough blueprint of how each shot will look, the anime production model generally splits these elements into two separate streams, with both the animation production and the art department using the layout as the basis to develop their side of it. The person responsible for delivering the art is credited as Art Director, usually a series-wide role. The art is often hand-painted on large sheets using a variety of techniques or is sometimes drawn digitally.

When complete and scanned digitally, the two streams are reunited by the photography/compositing stage of production which will then lead into any finishing effects work. Why am I telling you this? Because this season two anime in particular made me break my usual focus on animation appreciation and made me take a good hard look at the other side of the fence. They made me, dammit!

The two anime in question are Orange and Prisma Ilya 3rei Hertz, and their art snatched my attention for totally opposite reasons. Put frankly, those reasons are that Illya was utterly pathetic while Orange is very good. But before I get into kicking heads and patting backs on these two, I want to speak more generally on how anime uses background art.

Anime has been traditionally known as being geared towards effective layouts rather than pure animation and one of the ways this manifests is in a strong focus on the art stream. Anime considered to be ‘high quality’ and anime with large budgets also tend to have high-quality background art. Movies such as Miyazaki’s Ghibli outings, down to television anime like Attack on Titan or even Kill la Kill create rich, attractive works of art as a canvas for their animation. If you want to ogle at such high-grade backgrounds, head over to, from which I pinched some examples:

In some cases, the background art is given even more attention, becoming a driving artistic component of the series. A good example of this is Ghost in the Shell, where Mamoru Oshii ensured that every deeply detailed background helped build the richly textured and absorbing near-future world of the story. In Revolutionary Girl Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s entangled his backgrounds with his narrative, using abstraction, architecture and visual metaphor to speak to the audience.  This striking use of background art has become a defining trait of his.

Generally speaking, anime can at least put out settings and background art that act as an unobtrusive back-drop. Mediocre series from several prolific studios take this route, producing basic, bland still art that’s almost schematic in nature. When they need a house in the background it’s just a house; the backgrounds are technically not lacking but do not portray a lived-in and realistic feeling or any sense of artistic beauty or creativity. This kind of art direction is doing its job if you don’t notice it at all.

I’ve only rarely seen anime with art poor enough to actually make itself jump out at you for the wrong reasons, and when it happens it’s like a rude slap in the face, totally taking you out of the scene. The anime slapping me without restraint this season is Illya. It first hit me when Illya and friends walk into Miyu’s beachside ‘mansion’.

[HorribleSubs] Fate Kaleid Liner PRISMA ILLYA 3rei!! - 01 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_02.33_[2016.07.28_22.48.08]

I say mansion, but it actually looks like more of a repurposed storage warehouse decorated by a photoshop artist. This is the kind of ugly monstrosity of a house I probably designed in The Sims when I was a kid. This  vast, empty entrance hall with its absolutely illogical design and awkward symmetry actually gave off an unsettling surreal feeling. For what purpose would such a room have been designed? An amphitheatre-like internal balcony, spare of all furniture save for a single cupboard, the lack of decoration, the fact there are no supporting columns, the placement of the rooms, it’s all so unnatural. I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one would build a house like this.

It’s also clear that the artist who did it copied and pasted objects into some kind of 3D schematic instead of drawing it. The windows, doors and railing posts are all identical, even down to the shading. That process isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, but it is when it is so glaringly evident as this. The castle of the Ainsworth family is just as bad, only on a much grander scale:

[HorribleSubs] Fate Kaleid Liner PRISMA ILLYA 3rei!! - 04 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_03.54_[2016.07.28_22.49.55]

Every part of it looks like it’s been copied from another part and I don’t believe for a second that anyone with such extreme wealth would build a castle so ugly and lacking in any kind of architectural personality. Maybe they could only afford a kit-home castle. Gross.

By the time later episodes introduced the snow-laden abandoned school I was legitimately disturbed by what I saw:


You’ll need to click through to the full size images for these ones to see the problems:


On top of that, the layouts are totally dull and uninspired, seemingly framing scenes in such a way as to make the background art and composition job as simple as possible. Wherever they can, scenes are made flat, straight and symmetrical, often lined up with one or more structural geometries in the backgrounds. There is a clear attempt to avoid any difficult three-dimensional perspectives.

The composition and touch-up in post-production also seems intent on doing as little work as possible, with no interesting shadow, glare, glint or transparency effects being used. Illya has wowed me with its action animation in the past, and it usually animates itself passably, but if you look past the cute girls for a moment you’ll realise it’s a very ugly series.

Fortunately, the anime Orange achieved the opposite, bringing genuine beauty to the realistic setting of mountain-straddling urban Japan that borders on breathtaking at times.

Orange is also set in and around a Japanese school, which makes it all the more easy to compare and contrast with Illya’s abominable attempt.The difference is gobsmacking because Orange’s setting actually looks like a school rather than an unfinished soviet war prison.

Notice a few key points on Orange’s art:

  • You can see through the windows into the room detail.
  • The windows show reflection and glare.
  • The curtains are actually slightly transparent and they are all drawn at slightly different positions, kind of like how they would be IN REALITY.
  • The ground isn’t just a flat concrete texture as far as the eye can see but has stains, marks, manholes, joints, etc.
  • There is glare of harsh sunlight and shadows cast naturally throughout all of the background objects rather than starkly applied only when a cel or object clearly calls for it. The absence of sun or shadow in Illya’s world is a big part of how lifeless it feels.
  • All of the signs, noticeboards etc are not copied in from some other templates but drawn as part of the background.
  • The scenes are often shot at interesting angles not aligned dead-on with building edges and faces.
  • The blackboards have clear chalk-rub smears.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Orange good, Illya bad.

The man in charge of Illya’s art is Hiroshi Morikawa, associated with Studio Kaimu, who has an extensive history generating backgrounds but is brand new to the role of art director. This is a change – Takeshi Tateishi, associated with the preferable Studio Tulip, handled the previous two seasons. A note on Takeshi – he has two ANN entries (1 , 2) but is actually the one person.

The change is certainly noticeable – although IIlya has always had the same kind of approach to art direction, in this latest season it has demonstrably fallen in terms of quality. The episode credits for background art reveal that it’s largely handled by three studios, the aforementioned Kaimu, and the Korean companies DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION. The involvement of DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION doesn’t say a lot in and of itself, as they are widespread in the industry and are secondary artists supporting Kaimu (GACHI PRODUCTION even had a hand in production art on an Orange episode). However, the last time Morikawa, Kaimu and these two companies comprised the art department for a series was Subete ga F ni Naru and that show had similarly bland background work.

This time, Morikawa has been elevated from just a background artist to the art director. I also suspect that, as Illya’s Studio Kaimu credits lists no names under it, it largely refers to Morikawa himself. A stretched one-man lead background artist with no experienced art director oversight and only offshore companies to back him up is a recipe for disaster.

Was the change in art direction to try and tackle the alternate winter world in a different way? Maybe. To be fair to Morikawa, the few ‘money-shot’ depictions of snow-covered forests didn’t look too shabby. Or perhaps it was an economic measure. I suspect Morikawa comes cheap, given his obvious skill for copying and pasting objects, stretching textures and using few staff. This would certainly save a lot of effort and time compared to hand painted artworks such as those used on Orange. Whatever the reason, it backfired and  it’s a bad look for directors Masato Jinbo and Shin Oonuma. The higher-ups of the Illya franchise need to have a good hard think about whether they still care about the series or not, because it sure looks like they don’t.

At the end of the day here, the real difference is that the art direction in Orange is geared toward a fine art approach, which is probably considered to be the norm for anime. It’s particularly good at it, but it’s not the talent of the artists behind this show that so starkly differentiates it from Illya – the fact is that Illya takes a wholly different approach. Illya’s art direction is about constructing a perfunctory back-drop – it just has to be a place with the requisite details and objects present. The episode director asks for a scene in a school and he gets the bare-bones recognition level school we see. There’s no art in it at all, it does not portray a world or support the atmosphere of the show, it’s just there. However this season of Illya is even worse – it’s not ‘just there’, it’s glaringly, overwhelmingly bad.




Episode Spotlight: Mob Pycho 100 #1


Director & Storyboard: 立川譲 (Yuzuru Tachikawa) [Series Director]

Writer: 瀬古浩司 (Hiroshi Seko) [Series Composition]

Animation Director: 亀田祥倫 (Yoshimichi Kameda) [Series Chief Animation Director]

If you have an appreciation of animation, Mob Psycho will grab your attention and mercilessly pound it into absolute submission. I’m still in intensive care, but they’re letting me write this post under heavy sedation and monitoring. If you don’t appreciate animation you might see it as an anime with a ‘weird art style’ that’s still somehow awesome. But whatever your background, I think we can all agree that Mob Psycho 100 has a certain kick to it that perhaps no other anime does, and the force behind that kick comes from its animation production.

As intended, the writing is dry, the characters unpalatable and the story, at least in this early stage, no more than a premise for shounen gags. Don’t expect to be deeply moved or intellectually engaged by this series; it knows exactly what genre it is and throws everything at being the very beast shounen comedy it can be. Being descendant from the same original creator, Mob Psycho definitely has a likeness to the previously successful One Punch Man. The shounen topic, the style of comedy and the comic faces are closely aligned. Both series also have great animation, but Mob Psycho is a very different beast in this arena.

Unlike One Punch man, the show is relentlessly kinetic. Ever since the early days of TV-anime, most anime have a status quo animation style and all the creative energy and gusto would be thrown into the ‘money shots’. One Punch man was rightly lauded for its animation quality, but it still followed that pattern, that praise almost entirely referring to its frequent but fleeting action sequences. Sure, some of Mob Psycho’s greatest moments of animation come from the scenes where Mob uses his telekenetic powers, but the difference in energy is less clear-cut.

All throughout, this episode of Mob Psycho is stylistically restless, bursting at the seems with new ideas, and raw, unfiltered animation of totally different faculties. There’s some clear strains of Kanada-esque, or even Imaishi-school limited animation, some rich set-piece movement in the vein of Hironori Tanaka, web-gen digitally drawn effect work reminiscent of Shingo Yamashita.

The crumpled, hyper-emotional gag expressions remind me of the drawings from classic comedy anime GTO or, more recently, Azazel-san.

There’s an abundance of ambitious and unfiltered key animation work on display. There’s even some animation done using oil-painting on glass.

So, in this episode at least, there’s no status-quo – it’s a complete piece of animation. But there is a stylistic presence that stitches it all together, and that is of chief animation director Yoshimichi Kameda.

Mob Psycho is yet another break-out career moment for the ascendant Kameda, the man who is the embodiment of the primal ‘charisma animator’. I have been following him intently ever since his arresting action sequences as a young key animator in Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, his rough, charcoaly lines, coarse shading and unique effects proving to be the most iconic and memorable animation from the series. False prophets have come and gone, and countless animators have emulated his style, but Kameda is the only one out there that has Yoshinori Kanada’s particular brand of charisma – the drive to push the boundaries, to constantly exceed and upend expectations and with free and flamboyant animation. Like Kanada, his animation has the power to drive the production, not the other way around.

Kameda always goes over the top. He always gives you a bit more than you ask for (Laughs). If you imply that you want him to do his absolute best, to give it 100%, he’ll go away and return with 150%. I think he works best when you ask him to operate at around 80% capacity. –director Tachikawa

That charisma approach is at the beating heart of Mob Psycho, and his pioneering sumi-e brush aesthetic is clearly in play throughout the episode.

Animation aside, director Yuzuru Tachikawa’s storyboard and layout work give this episode a fast-cut pace and rich composition that means the character cels and the background art don’t feel starkly separate. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having cels stand-out, but it’s refreshing to see an anime that follows a different path.

The dynamic, near-formless animation created under Kameda combined with Tachikawa’s layouts mean that Mob Psycho has few obvious traces of a standard TV animation production. It’s less of an anime and more of a manga that’s come to life.

The Magic of Mitsuo Iso


Mitsuo Iso is my favourite animator – that’s an unequivocal fact. Regrettably, it hasn’t been a good decade to be a fan of Iso. Since his work as director on the commercially unsuccessful Denno Coil, he has been an elusive, enigmatic figure, making only scant appearances uncredited here and there. Recently though, we’ve had good news from abroad: Mitsuo Iso has been found alive and well and a French company has dragged him into working on a new animated feature film of theirs, Les Pirates de la Réunion, le réveil des dodos! If you saw that news article pop up on your crunchyroll or ANN feed and didn’t know what all the fuss was about, then this post is for you.

To celebrate the return of the chosen one, I thought I’d gush all over my keyboard for a couple of hours so that the world can at least know the depths of my love for this man. Rather than a detailed break-down of his style and work, it’s more of an indulgent propaganda piece.

Iso is a testament to the fact that, contrary to the frothing gibberish that many western animation purists purport, more frames does not equal better animation. Anyone out there who flatly believes that the more fluid animation is, the better it is, or the more realistic it is, needs to stop and listen to the message Iso conveys through his work.

Throughout his long and industrious career Iso has delved deeper into understanding expressing movement than any other major animator I have seen, which has given him the ability to craft animation in a way no one else in the world can, and that’s no hyperbole. The way in which he shows movement that feels both realistic and organic yet intrinsically ‘animation’ is so perfect and so difficult to break down technically that it’s nothing short of magical. There’s no doubt he has a gift that can’t be learned. When his animation craft is woven into a climactic moment of the right anime, it has the ability to take your breath away.

In my early days of anime fandom, when I didn’t even know what an animation director was, one such scene floored me: Asuka fighting the mass production Evas in the End of Evangelion movie. I actually watched it again recently and that only confirmed its uncontested status as my favourite sequence of animation. I suggest everyone give it another watch (spoiler alert):

It’s not my favourite sequence because it’s the most technically impressive, because it has the best drawing quality or the most realistic movement – I could reel off plenty of examples that best it in any one category. It’s not one quality I can put my finger on but there’s something intangible and transcendent in there.

Perhaps it’s the sense of weight and gravity of the Evas colliding and swinging their joints, the visceral power of their lunges and the way they reel back from the sheer forces involved in the battle. Maybe it’s the way, even though Evangelion is a giant ‘mecha’ its every movement evokes the cathartic willpower of Asuka’s last few breaths – it’s a desperate, violent scramble for survival on a grander scale. Or maybe it’s the fact that every detail is accounted for – the speed at which debris fall, the way leaves ripped from trees are whisked around by momentum, the uniquely real spurting and splattering of blood or the trailing wisps of smoke from the clashing swords. It’s not one of these things, it’s all of them and more. It’s Mitsuo Iso. It doesn’t matter how much money or how many animators you could throw at a movie, we have one man to thank for the animation in this sequence and it could never be done without him. Never.

Every Frame is Key

With the “full-limited” style he developed and frequently used he shuns the traditional approach of having the key animator drawing the key poses in a cut and having in-betweeners draw the frames between. Instead, he exerts complete control over his cuts, doing every drawing himself. But there’s more to it than that, he doesn’t just do away with in-between animators, he does away with the whole concept of in-between frames – by treating every drawing as key. This means he is never drawing just to get from one pose to the next, but every frame takes the movement forward in a totally organic way. This avoids any semblance of the old animation problem of characters looking as though they are awkwardly snapping into poses and revolutionises our understanding of what it means for animation to be realistic.

An army of in-betweeners could make animation that moved at real-life speeds of 60 frames per second plus, but that wouldn’t make it any more realistic if the movement wasn’t happening in a realistic way. By the same token, if the characters are moving in a realistic manner, they don’t NEED to move at 60fps for it to feel entirely real and authentic. And even if a key animator had a prodigious grasp of anatomy and movement, if the movement is being planned out by only a portion of the frame total it will never feel truly real.

Mitsuo Iso’s animation is limited in the sense that he doesn’t draw 24 frames per second, but with a lot less drawings (limited animation) he is able to give the same impression as if it were full. He does this by having a masterful understanding of how things move at their very core. There is absolutely no redundant movement in his animation; each frame is a discrete evolution in the broader motion going on. As a result, things can constantly be accelerating, decelerating or changing course which gives his motion a sense of vitality, of being alive. That’s why his animation gives the impression of realism without moving with the same framerate.

Master of Motion

But it’s not enough to make things be constantly moving arbitrarily (as many other animators are guilty of); Mitsuo Iso also has a genius understanding of how things should move. His animation doesn’t come from repeated textbook learning but from some deeply innate knowledge of how to translate what he observes in real life into a sequence of drawings. This is where the magic of Iso comes into play.

When he animated that End of Evangelion scene, the Evas moved with weight the of giant robots and also the will of humans.

In the ghost in the shell sequence, the spider tanked crept around like an arachnid yet also moved with a robotic, mechanised purpose.

And don’t worry, he’s not just a mecha animator! His portrayal of every-day human movement is so natural it can be profound such as the crying scene in the Digimon movie, or the running in Umi ga Kikoeru.

To top it off, he is one of the best effects animators out there, portraying explosions, smoke and water with a kind of enigmatic authenticity that is hard to match. His climactic scene in FLCL or his explosion in Blood+ are good examples of this.

At the end of the day, Mitsuo Iso’s realism doesn’t mimic real life it recreates it. Instead of a dull straight-forward reproduction of real movement, he harnesses the power and potential of animation to create evocative sequences that merely use a grounding in reality to further enhance their impact and visceral beauty.

A True Creator

Like many other accomplished animators before him, Mitsuo Iso began to spread his wings to soar above the whole creative process, with a resounding effort at pretty much everything with the renowned Raxephon episode 15 where he handled production, writing, storyboard, 2D  digital effects and key animation – an unheard of feat for TV anime. He bought along the same philosophy that informed his key animation career and wanted to show that you can make a high-quality product within the confines of limited budget and schedule by cutting out the challenge of trying to interpret and execute another person’s vision. This is taking his demolishing of in-between frames to a higher level. He proved his point with an a moody, cinematic and completely satisfying episode. He also proved that he was cut out for creating stories, not just telling other people’s stories with his animation.

This change in tack for his craft led him to being in charge of his very first major project: Denno Coil. Iso came up with this one from the ground up, as creator, director and screenwriter. A fascinating blend of neighborhood-roaming childhood coming-of-age and near-future augmented-reality science fiction, Denno Coil was unique, thoroughly entertaining and richly animated. Unfortunately it was not a resounding success, failing to make an impact or garner strong sales despite a generous TV time-slot. Although mostly hearsay it also indicated that Iso may not be suited to the director’s chair, his perfectionism and instinct-driven style poorly matched to entrusting animators under him. This may have caused a falling out with the previous brother-in-arms, Takeshi Honda, who was the chief animator for the series.

It is also probably the reason he vanished into a distant myth ever since. However, with the news that he is coming back with a feature film, all heads should be turned as no one can doubt the capacity of Iso to create something amazing.



Further Reading



Spring Season 2014

Birds are singing, flowers are blossoming, and we’re all hibernating indoors watching Japanese cartoons – that’s right, spring season is upon us! My dormant passion for anime has been stirred again, and I’m in the mood to put thoughts into words and words into the unheeded abyss that is my blog! So please enjoy my borderline sarcastic and marginally informative thoughts on the Spring o’ 2014 lineup!

Let’s be clear about what’s going to happen now, before I just go wild and leap into it: I’m going to briefly review and discuss every first episode of the season! But there’s a catch: I’m skipping second seasons that I have not seen and have not been forced to watch regardless by friends. Such exclusions include: Cardfight Vanguard, Date A Live, Dragon Ball Kai, Fairy Tale, etc. Actually, there’s another catch; I’m also going to skip series I can’t be bothered summoning the interest to even think about watching, such as Hero Bank, Kamigami no Asobi, Kiniro no Corda, Marvel Disk Wars, etc. Yep, as you might have guessed, I’m an anime badass with no time for shows for women and children.
Also, please note that these reviews are based on the first episode only! In many cases I have watched on, but I don’t have the time to revise all the reviews in this post or it would never be finished! Honestly, this took me a lot longer than I expected, which is why it’s only just seeing the light of day mid-season. On the upside, I definitely have my finger on the pulse more than usual this season after writing all this!

I would love to hear people’s feedback or differing opinions on any of this stuff, so comment away if you get an inkling!

Continue reading “Spring Season 2014”

Robot Girls Z – Mazingers in Skirts

Timeline of events that led to this post:


me (said to a mate over dinner): “I feel like watching some shitty anime tomorrow!”


I watched all three episodes of Robot Girls Z

There you have it. I’m not sure if anyone else gets in these same moods as me, but every so often I just get this nagging sensation start to brew in the cockles of my heart – a yearning to watch a mindless, plotless and unapologetically trashy anime. It’s illogical and irrational, but it must be done. This time, Robot Girls Z, a 3-part OVA series by Toei, just happened to catch my eye and looked like it would fit the bill to satiate my needs.

The basic gimmick behind Robot Girls Z is that it features personified mecha from Toei’s classic old-school franchise, Mazinger Z. Actually, rather than ‘basic’ premise, maybe I should say the ‘whole premise’, because that’s about all there is to it. The robots-turned-girls are a team of superheroes who are locked in an amicable struggle with an evil organisation who aim for world conquest, which is also wholly staffed by cute girlised-robots. When it’s all said and done, the story is all a thinly veiled pretense for gags, fanservice, and cute, silly fun. Oh, and tickles of nostalgia for the veteran fans of the old super robot series.

The allusions to and in-jokes from Mazinger Z are probably the only drawcard this series has for a lot of people – the one thing that makes it not just another pile of moe nonsense. But for me it was maybe the only deterrent for the show. Because I am a giant, unenlightened pleb when it comes to the realm of mecha, or super robot .. or whatever this is (see what I mean). I see the genre as some Macross Wing Gattai Destiny Z haze, and can barely tell a Gundam from one of those other ones that isn’t Gundam. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but I will say that, although it’s not something that keeps me up at night, I do feel like I’m missing out at times like these. Like the time I had to watch Carnival Phantasm with a well-nasu-versed Type Moon friend so he could explain the jokes to me and tell me when to laugh.

Ditto here; I couldn’t count the amount of times I felt a joke or homage skim over my head. Even without my prior knowledge, I actually started to get curious about how the grabbing, adorable designs came to be. This provides a nice comparison.

So most of the design work is pretty simple, it turns out – a touch of costume colour scheme, whack on a helmet styled after the robot’s face and hey presto you have a robot girl. I do like what they did with Doublas M2 though – converting the twin heads to cute hand puppets is a nice little idea. Actually, Doublas M2 is the character designer’s favourite robot/mecha so it makes sense that she got the extra dash of ingenuity. On the other hand, Poses oII’s unflattering, finned wetsuit is a fitting conversion of the original ugly sea beast. But I think it would be really interesting to see how the personalities of the girls, and their interactions were translated from the original series. I’m sure there’s a lot more nuance to the parody behind that.

I do think a Mazinger fan would get a lot more laughs, smirks and knowing nods of appreciation from this than I did, but I ended up enjoying it for other, more carnal reasons.

You see, Robot Girls Z embraces the otaku nature of its target audience, and doesn’t think twice about piling on the fanservice, cliche, references and moe ingredients. I enjoy a good story or sakuga artwank as much as the next man, but I’m also willing to put aside my pretentiousness sometimes and just get swept up in the rush of pretty colours, cheap laughs, cute girls and panty-shots that anime is often known for. It’s as though Robo Girls Z knew I had my mecha Learner plates up, because it offset my Mazinger ignorance by turning up the dial on all those things.

I really didn’t expect this show to take the fanservice as far as it did, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. Yes, I’m one of those despicable fans who doesn’t see a problem with creators flaunting the good looks of their heroines (or heroes if you’re that way inclined). This show had everything from underwater breast molesting, loli panties, right through to a lesbian trap near-sex scene. The whole show had a pleasant air of eroticism to it that meant it was hard to see a dull moment behind the barrage of eye candy. I guess it makes sense, since the original robots never wore clothes either, right? The fanservice was obvious, but always cute and vibrant, and never went far enough to feel dirty or pornographic. Much like Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta recently, it’s fanservice done right – just the right degree of prurience.

And it really helps that the girls themselves have really adorable character designs! I found myself forgetting they were based on an old super robot show, and just appreciating their charming designs at face value. I really love this style of facial design – their colourful, rounded eyes and childish expressions just sing moe!

Initially, it really reminded me of Kanzaki Hiro’s design work (Ore no Imouto, Go! Go! 575), which  I then discovered made a whole lot of sense, because the designer here, Tetsuya Kawakami, was the chief animation director for much of OreImo. That means he was the main person in charge of transferring Kanzaki Hiiro’s designs to anime form. I do think Hiro’s designs rubbed off on him a bit here.

But he is also a very successful character designer and animator in his own right. He seemed to fall into the animation business from his childhood affinity with drawing, and got his foot in the door working at Studio Mu. He built up a strong biography of key animation work for studio BONES and J.C Staff on Full Metal Alchemist, Wolfs Rain, Eureka 7, Kurau Phantom Memory, A Certain Scientific Index, and others. I’m not familiar with his animation specifically, but apparently he was called upon to add fluidity to action scenes quite a lot. But he’s known more for his prolific illustration and character design work, which started out with Shigofumi and has reach its popular pinnacle so far with Sword Art Online’s characters.

Robot Girls Z is a great display of his skill – he designed a lot of characters for this, and every single one of them stands out in their own. Here’s a few samples of the designs, taken from the official website:

Their facial definition, and the gamut of expressions they exhibit gives them a natural, almost effortless striking personality. And, aren’t they just so cute!? He’s certainly very in tune with the popular style, and has a real knack for drawing beautiful girls who strike the moe chord but can also look fierce if they need to. Kawakami must have moe flowing through his veins. It wouldn’t surprise me because drawing cute girls and alluring heroines has quickly becoming his speciality (a forte  he acknowledges himself). Not just for his design work, his animation is usually employed for bishoujo scenes. His more recent lineup of work illustrates this quite well.

But he also has a predilection for the slapstick and comical. That might not be apparent from his body of design work, but when you consider that he was the chief animation director for this series, it’s not a stretch to consider that a lot of the comedically exaggerated facial expressions had his input. Whether it was his doing or not, they were much appreciated and really gave this anime a lively boost. He actually got down and dirty and did some genga for episode 3, and I’m actually pretty curious about which cut(s) were his, now that I’ve read about him!

The animation overall was a great boon to the OVA, with the right amount of exaggerated poses and demented motion to help pull off the jokes. The look of the anime is vivid and rich in colour, but not colourful to the point of being obnoxious.

The action scenes were enacted with fast, spurious and spirited limited animation, and dabbed with stylistic throwbacks to the animation of the old original shows, the heyday of Yoshinori Kanada and others of his ilk.

I also noticed these little references. Blink and you’d miss ‘em but the little man in Z’s mouth is actually a caricature of Go-Nagai himself (who created Mazinger Z).

The key animator lineup stayed pretty consistent throughout, and this resulted in an anime with a cursive visual coherency, with every episode delivering the same polish and punch as the last. On the downside, that meant there were few idiosyncratic moments to give it that ‘sauga’ edge – one of the few being this brutal punch in the third episode. The rough, bold lines and jagged movement indicate that it was Kan Ogawa. You can see the similarity for yourself in this MAD. I’d called them a sketchy charisma animator – some things in life can only be expressed by rough pencil lines!

I’ve always said that good designs, and strong animation can turn a anime that sounds bad on paper into something genuinely enjoyable, and Robot Girls Z one of many examples of this. Its appeal is essentially otaku nostalgia and smut, but it’s fashioned with such gleam and energy that it’s hard to resist. Robot Girls Z is cute, fun and easy to swallow, so if you find yourself in one of those moods to watch something less high brow, I’d recommend it.